By Allen Gahler
As we enter the longest, hottest part of the summer, the challenge is real for grazing and hay production. Despite the good (or abundant) moisture received around most of Ohio throughout early and even late spring in some cases, many areas are now parched and hoping summer rains will soon deliver some much-needed relief to dry soils.
As a result, most graziers have probably started to experience the typical summer slump, when our cool season grasses have slowed and maybe even stopped growing, and we must manage our forages very carefully to make sure the herd or flock is well fed for the next 60 days.
While most experienced forage producers and graziers normally have a plan that is already in motion when the summer slump hits, mother nature often forces us to deviate, or at least to think critically about that next pasture rotation, timing of the next hay cutting, the next fertilizer application or the use of backup plans such as stored feeds or alternative forages.
As we begin to weigh those options, especially since this is shaping up to be what looks like a very hot, dry and stressful July for our pastures and hayfields, there are several things we should be thinking about doing, but also several things we need to remind ourselves that now is not the time for.
It has been said, written and explained over and over through the years — not much good ever comes from overgrazing. No matter how short we think we may be on pasture forage supply, leaving the animals out there for even an extra day or two during a hot, dry stretch, or anytime for that matter, can and will do more harm than good.
We typically will not force them to eat the less desirable species, as animals will continue to select the most palatable plants in the pasture, clipping every last morsel of new growth, and leaving the undesirable species there to go to seed and reproduce.
Those extra few days we try to gain might be just enough to allow those weed seeds to mature before we rotate and clip them off. And the recovery period will likely be twice as long or more if we grazed it to the ground, setting us back on our plan for the rest of the year.
Now is also not the time to park the chopper! Just because our cool season grasses have stopped growing does not mean the weeds have.
Some of the most undesirable weeds seem to enjoy the hot and dry conditions, and if we choose to save the fuel and the effort by not clipping them off, we will likely see the fruits of our lack of labor next year in a more highly populated stand of weeds.
Many annuals that can become issues for us also are just starting to or are still germinating in July, especially if we graze too much off and leave an open canopy for them to get through.
Even if we skip a paddock or choose to not make a second cutting of grass hay on a field because of reduced tonnage, clipping it a little higher with the chopper in July will hopefully keep the weeds down, keep the desirable grasses thinking about vegetative growth, provide some mulch to the soil and return some nutrients back to the ground, all contributing to more successful late summer and fall growth.
Nitrogen — the key to green growth. Many producers think adding fertilizer any time a plant is stressed will certainly help it out. While there may be some small benefit to some species, the beginning of the summer slump is not the ideal time for a nitrogen application.
First off, without adequate moisture, we are likely to lose most of that nitrogen to volatilization — even with stabilizers, unless a timely rain comes along.
But even then, our predominantly cool season pastures will not begin growing significantly again until late summer or early fall, so making that application at the beginning of that next growth period will provide much more benefit, making more sense agronomically and financially.
Don’t forget the phosphorus and potassium. While it may be a good time to forget about nitrogen temporarily, now is actually a good time to be thinking about phosphorous and potassium.
While our cool season grass pastures do not remove near as much as our alfalfa hay fields or pastures with significant legumes, we still need to understand that in any agronomic setting, the nitrogen we want to apply later will benefit those plants much more if they are sufficient in other nutrients.
It may not be ideal trying to force a soil probe into the rock-hard ground in July, but if we have not soil tested in a few years and conditions allow, let’s work that into the plans now so we can see if an application of phosphorus or potassium might be needed to keep a field in shape and allow for maximum production.
For those that have a combined field crop and livestock operation, alternative forages have likely been a part of your forage plan for years already. If not, they should be!
Double crop soybeans may pan out financially every so often, but in a drier year where forage production has suffered, alternative forages that can be planted following wheat can be a much more viable option for the pocketbook.
While some annual forages such as sorghum and sudan grasses should be planted as soon as possible following wheat, we need to keep in mind that those are warm season species. Oats, rye, triticale and other cool season crops will not benefit from an early planting, as our research has shown for several years in trials all over Ohio.
Oats planted prior to Aug. 1 typically try to produce grain, and will mature very quickly, as well as be more susceptible to diseases such as crown rust.
To optimize oats in a grazing plan or fall hay production plan, plant them between Aug. 1-10, with around 50 units of nitrogen before or soon after planting. A fungicide application approximately 30 days after planting has been shown to increase yield and preserve nutrient content while protecting from leaf and crown diseases.
Whatever your plan grazing and forage plan is, however Mother Nature forces you to deviate from it and no matter what your current moisture situation is, just remember, timing is key on almost everything we do as forage managers. Do some research, plan ahead and implement the right practices at the right time, not when it is convenient for you, and better results will follow.
(Allen Gahler is an OSU Extension ag and natural resources extension educator in Sandusky County.)
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